Some 62,000 ultra-Orthodox Jewish men attended a mass rally in New York on Sunday, where they were warned about the dangers of the Internet and told how they could use the World Wide Web in a religiously acceptable way.
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Eytan Kobre, a lawyer who served as spokesman for the event, said the rally's purpose was not to ban the Internet, but to learn how to make use of it responsibly. "There is a very significant downside to the Internet," he said. "It does pose a challenge to various aspects of our lives."
Some 42,000 Haredi men packed the Citi Field Stadium in Queens, New York, home of the Mets, while another 20,000 crowded into the nearby Arthur Ashe Stadium to watch the event on closed circuit tv screens. Thousands of others watched it by satellite broadcast from Jerusalem, London, Antwerp and Bnei Brak.
Women were not permitted to attend the rally, but it was broadcast live to women's gatherings in schools and event halls in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods around New York.
It was also broadcast on satellite TV, and Haaretz has learned of at least one Haredi Internet site, which has been banned by the rabbis, that dared broadcast the event live. Reports about it also appeared on ultra-Orthodox websites and blogs in Hebrew, English and Yiddish, and ironically, clips of it were broadcast on YouTube.
Hundreds of American media outlets, including the New York Times, covered the event. Press reports have pegged the amount raised for the rally at $1.5 million.
Among the hundreds of prominent rabbis attending the conference were the Vizhnitzer Rebbe in Monsey, Satmar Rebbe Zalman Leib Teitelbaum, the Skverer Rebbe and the Rebbe of Skulen, who sponsored the rally together with Rabbi Matisyahu Solomon, a widely known British-born non-Hasidic rabbi.
The Skulener Rebbe has been quoted on the Haredi website JDN as saying, "Whoever uses the Internet without a filter is a beast, because the source of Internet is beastliness." He also said "all the diseases and weird deaths inflicted on the People of Israel are only because of the Internet's spreading to their homes."
One speaker at the rally compared the threat of the Internet to the dangers that Zionism and the Enlightenment period posed in the past to traditional Jewish life. Several of the speakers decried the Internet's potential to distract yeshiva students.
Total ban pointless
But the hundreds of rabbis sitting at the dais in the stadium appeared to understand that banning the Internet altogether would be pointless. So they united in calling on their followers to reduce their exposure to cyberspace as much as possible, in whatever way possible.
Several rabbis said Jewish law forbids Jews from browsing the Internet without a filter that blocks inappropriate sites. One rabbi said no private home should have an Internet connection, even for work purposes. At the office, he said, it should only be permitted for work requirements, and with an appropriate filter.
Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman, however, noted that the internet "is a minefield of immorality," even with a filter.
The Haredi leadership in Israel sent several delegates to the conference, headed by Rabbi Dan Segal.
Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Steinman, the Lithuanian community's leader in Bnei Brak, was cited in the Haredi newspaper Yated Neeman as saying "the Internet is the greatest corrupter and inciter of our generation, like the cursed Enlightenment that sabotaged Israel's vineyard."
Another Lithuanian rebbe, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, published a letter in the same newspaper calling the Internet a "device for idolatry and incest," adding that there isn't a home with an Internet connection "that doesn't have the most severe failures. Entire families have been wrecked."
"No one here is a Luddite who denies the manifold benefits that technology has brought to mankind as a whole," said Kobre. "But at a certain point, a mature, thinking individual stops and says, "I've got to make a cost-benefit analysis [of] what ways it is enriching my life, [and] in what ways it is undermining it."
Kobre mentioned online pornography and gambling as examples of Internet dangers that disturb "our ability to pray uninterruptedly, to focus and to concentrate."
The event opened with a Kosher Tech Expo featuring Web-filtering technology. Despite this, many of the rabbis involved insist they still oppose the Internet, which they described in the starkest terms.
In an interview to the Brooklyn Orthodox daily Hamodia, Solomon said the Internet and modern technology had dragged down the Jewish people to their lowest level since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, in 70 C.E.
"The purpose of the [gathering] is for people to realize how terrible the Internet is and, of course, the best thing for every [good Jew] is not to allow it in his home at all," he told Hamodia.
"Internet without a filter is 'treif gamur' (completely unkosher )," he told the paper.
Net vs. employment
Outright bans, however, appear to be failing. Ultra-Orthodox men fiddle with smartphones on New York City subways. Twitter use is not uncommon among young Satmar Hasidim in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. Home Internet access is said to be widespread even in upstate New York's strictly observant Hasidic community Kiryas Joel.
Compounding the challenges to rabbinic Internet bans are the employment opportunities for ultra-Orthodox in high-tech. Technical jobs don't necessarily require a high school or college degree, which is a plus in Orthodox communities, where men often forgo secular studies, said David Pollock, of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, who has worked to place Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn in high-tech jobs.
"It's about embracing the good that exists in the brave new technological world that we have, but being not at all naive, and being extremely keen to the overwhelming challenge that it presents to all of us," Kobre said.
Kobre said that the efforts to minimize Internet use and employ filters have parallels in the largely successful efforts to ban televisions in Orthodox communities. Televisions were widespread in Haredi homes in the 1960s and '70s, but "few right-wing Orthodox homes have them now," he said.
Still, he admitted, while television is banned or discouraged, many ultra-Orthodox Jews do use the Internet either on computers or smartphones.